31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 19: “The Latehomecomer” by Mavis Gallant

May 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From From the Fifteenth District

“I know what you are thinking,” said my mother, who was standing behind me. “I know that you are judging me. If you could guess what my life has been – the whole story, not only the last few years – you wouldn’t be hard on me.”

Mavis Gallant has been accused of being hard on her characters: she has an austere yet merciless eye that is able to cut through hypocrisy and pretension with the ease of a scalpel through flesh. It is this tendency, perhaps, that has resulted in her being less read than she deserves to be; her near-contemporary, Alice Munro, is more beloved, largely because Munro is more compassionate in her writing. Gallant, by contrast, can be vicious and unsparing. But she is never less than completely honest, which may be another attribute that renders modern readers uncomfortable.

“The Latehomecomer” is about a German POW in France who returns home to Berlin in 1950 to discover that his mother has remarried. The young man, Thomas, endures an uncomfortable interview with Martin, his new stepfather, and Martin’s friend, Willy Wehler, all the while trying to recapture the idea of his mother that he held in his mind prior to his return home.

As with most of Gallant’s stories, the dominant tone of “The Latehomecomer” is one of acerbic irony. Thomas, who has spent five postwar years in Rennes as the result of a bureaucratic error, realizes that he represents something that his fellow country folk would rather not be reminded of: “my appearance, my survival, my bleeding gums and loose teeth; my chronic dysentery and anemia, my craving for sweets, my reticence with strangers, the cast-off rags I had worn on arrival, all said ‘war’ when everyone wanted peace, ‘captivity’ when the word was ‘freedom,’ and ‘dry bread’ when everyone was thinking ‘jam and butter.'” Everywhere, Germany’s inhabitants console themselves with wishful thinking about what occurred during the reign of the Nazi regime:

[Martin] had inherited two furnished apartments in a town close to an American military base. One of the two had been empty for years. The occupants had moved away, no one knew where – perhaps to Sweden. After their departure, which had taken place at five o’clock on a winter morning in 1943, the front door had been sealed with a government stamp depicting a swastika and an eagle. The vanished tenants must have died, perhaps in Sweden, and now no local person would live in the place, because a whole family of ghosts rattled about, opening and shutting drawers, banging on pipes, moving chairs and ladders.

There could be only one reason why the family would abandon their home at five o’clock on a winter morning, and while it’s undoubtedly more comfortable to think that they made it to Sweden – even that they died there – this is surely a consoling fiction. Like many of Gallant’s most corrosive ironies, she refuses to spell this out, instead allowing the reader to reach the awful conclusion for herself.

The spectre of the war haunts the story in other ways. Thomas’s father was stabbed to death while tearing down an election poster from the wall of a schoolhouse; his stepfather Martin is an older man who lost an arm while working as a tram conductor and so (presumably) sat out the war. He is prone to making jokes about wartime, claiming that a faded rectangle on the wall of his house represents the spot where the previous tenants removed Hitler’s picture when “they left in a hurry without paying the rent.” An ex-Waffen-S.S. soldier from Belgium haunts the neighbourhood, complaining that the local women won’t go out with him and that no one has thanked him for his contribution to the war effort. When Willy tells Martin that the Belgian fought on Germany’s side in the war, Martin’s response is, “He did? No wonder we lost.”

Here we see glimmers of Gallant’s mordant humour, a strain of which runs throughout “The Latehomecomer.” Most frequently, this humour attaches itself to Willy Wehler, who Thomas describes as “a stout man with three locks of slick grey hair across his skull.” He goes on to say, “All the fat men of comic stories and of literature were to be Willy Wehler to me, in the future.” When he visits, Willy is wearing a nylon shirt, which in the years following the war was considered a luxury item. “That Willy!” Martin says to Thomas, “Out of a black uniform and into the black market before you could say ‘democracy.'” About this observation, Thomas says that he “never knew whether it was a common Berlin joke or something Martin had made up or the truth about Willy.”

The entirety of Gallant’s story is about the residue that is left over after a war, and the changes that a catastrophic conflict can wreak on individuals and communities. The word “latehomecomer” refers to “a new category of persons” that Martin lumps together with the “shiftless and illiterate refugees from the Soviet zone, or bombed-out families still huddled in barracks” – categories of people who might cause him to lose his postwar inheritance should the state decide to increase taxes in order to house and feed them.  Thomas’s Uncle Gerhard has been “officially de-Nazified by a court of law” and now lives “in two rooms carved out of a ruin, raising rabbits for a living and hoping that no one would notice him.” For his part, Thomas, who was taken prisoner when he was only 16, returns home at 21 to find that his own mother fails to recognize him at the train station. Willy tells Thomas a story about a topaz brooch he bought from his neighbours during the war – a story his mother tells Thomas not to repeat because the Nazis had made it illegal to purchase anything from Jews.

No one in Gallant’s story is unaffected by the conflict, and Thomas does not return home to a cozy reunion with his mother and his absent brother. Rather, he finds his mother remarried and a strange surname engraved on the plaque attached to the house where she is living. Thomas has a recollection of his mother nursing a baby and another woman telling her, “Give some to Thomas.” While he suggests that the idea of him drinking from his mother’s breast “must have been a dream,” he is clearly desperate to return to a kind of childlike existence, something that is no longer possible. In the end, he is left wishing he “was a few hours younger” and still on the train that would deliver him back home, a point at which he still held “the one beloved face” of his prewar mother in his mind.

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